Saturday 24 August 2019

Liverpool punished by ruthless Messi magic

Barcelona 3-0 Liverpool

Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their third goal with Sergi Roberto, Luis Suarez and Sergio Busquets. Photo: REUTERS/Susana Vera
Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their third goal with Sergi Roberto, Luis Suarez and Sergio Busquets. Photo: REUTERS/Susana Vera

Miguel Delaney

In a season where Liverpool have so impressively pushed themselves to their very limits, it was all the more galling Lionel Messi showed them what the true limits of the game really are.

That was the level the Argentinian and the Barcelona attack reached here. A smarter and superior side just picked Liverpool off for a calculated 3-0 win that surely kills the tie, and puts the Catalans on the brink of a first Champions League final in four years.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi scores their second goal. Photo: REUTERS/Albert Gea
Barcelona's Lionel Messi scores their second goal. Photo: REUTERS/Albert Gea

That the victory was crowned with the most impossibly angled free-kick from Messi was fitting, because it summed up the calculation of the Barca performance, that was initially so charged by former Anfield hero Luis Suarez opening the scoring.

Liverpool didn't really deserve that kind of defeat, and certainly shouldn't take much shame in it, but that's also the real point. This is what this level is all about. This is what winning prizes and reaching the end line rather than just going the distance is all about.

That should just be another part of the team's education rather than anything to get too deflated about, though, as Messi delivered another lesson. Because, really, this is what he is all about. And the win was mostly about him.

His deep desire to win that fifth personal Champions League - and sixth for Barcelona - has been distilled into displays like that. What was amazing was that it was for so long one of those absorbingly tight games, but between two sides who so exhilaratingly stretch the pitch.

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp. Photo: REUTERS/Albert Gea
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp. Photo: REUTERS/Albert Gea

Invigorating

That was where so much of the invigorating tension was, as both teams looked to constantly contain but also seek to explosively counter, meaning it was always on the edge.

And not just in terms of the play. There was an increasing bite to the match, especially after Messi felt James Milner had intentionally barged him off the pitch. That probably had an unintended effect, if he did mean it. It invigorated Messi for what was to come.

It is the immense strength of the Argentinian's gravitational pull that only pushed the match further out to the limits, because all play is shaped around him, because of the influence mere awareness of his presence has.

Klopp seemed to be trying a system whereby they initially had three defenders immediately closing in on him when he got within 30 yards of goal, but that then caused the problem of creating space elsewhere.

There was always that sense the play was just on the brink, and it still required Andy Robertson to push himself to the limit with the most sensational of last-second blocks to come out of nowhere and prevent Messi opening the scoring.

It wasn't completely comfortable at the other end, though. Barca do have an approach where the exact abilities of their defenders means they are equally willing to play on the line, but that always looks so particularly dangerous against an attack with the pace of Liverpool's.

The tactical dilemma for the Reds was how far to push this, because Messi's partnership with Suarez meant Barca were just more capable of devastatingly turning defence into attack in a matter of seconds. Barca did feel that bit more controlled then, even at the pace that was being played at it, and so much of this came together for that thunderbolt of an opening goal.

In a flash, they were ahead.

Jordi Alba fizzed in the perfect delivery and, with Virgil van Dijk of all people caught out for a mere millisecond, Suarez had enough to just guide it into the net.

That was part of a spell where Barcelona just looked so sharp, and almost every one-touch move was putting them in.

The frustration for Liverpool was they did then respond to this with resolve, and probably their best spell of the game.

It really tested Barca's often surprising willingness to sit on the elasticity of their centre-halves and risk pressure, not to mention the solidity of their number-one.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen just might be the best goalkeeper in the world, as he illustrated with so many dependable saves, and then two brilliant ones - especially to keep out James Milner.

It didn't always seem the steadiest of ground, but was ultimately the most highly calculated of gameplans, as this all just the platform for the most cutting-edge counter-attack in Europe.

Not for the first time, Liverpool found themselves without even the time to second-guess Barca's forwards. They were just too quick. Even Van Dijk was again found wanting as Suarez was put in, he put the ball onto the bar, and Messi so easily put it into the net.

The coup de grace was still to come. It is the greatest testament to Messi that he made that look just as easy as his tap-in, despite producing an angle of trajectory that is surely close to impossible.

That's how good he is.

That's how devastating he was.

There was one late flurry for Liverpool as Salah was almost caught out when presented with a fine late chance, reacting too late so he could only hit the post.

The seconds mattered. The inches mattered. Messi showed them why.

Independent News Service

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